Everyone’s A Critic

Cool for America: Stories BY Andrew Martin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $20.
The cover of Cool for America: Stories

In Andrew Martin’s new story collection, we’re with the critics, who are also writers, who often don’t write anything at all. Like Derek, who peaks hate-skimming a novel by the sometime-boyfriend of Violet, a member of his War and Peace reading group: “First paragraph: way too long. How many clauses did one man need? Last sentence: something about a Carolyn ‘emerging carelessly’ from a car. Indeed.” Derek throws the book in the trash, feels something. He is lashing out, having “been proven wrong in his interpretations of the text at every turn” over eight months of Tolstoy, and all in front of his lady love.

Derek’s isn’t just a story about not being able to read Tolstoy—a forgivable offense. It’s also about not being able to read women. This is most dire when Derek congratulates himself for being a nice guy after getting a drunk Violet safely home one night: “He would go home, text her in the morning. It was an investment, his decency. It would accrue interest.” But Martin’s narrator immediately cuts in to vanquish this rude metaphor: “He didn’t understand anything about money.” Poor Derek, he doesn’t know if he played that one right—if he could only bestow decency unto himself and eliminate the second guessing. Come to think of it, “He probably should have just stayed. That would have been a normal, friendly thing to do. Proof that he didn’t harbor some ulterior motive.” (Nice guys don’t need proof.)

Martin clearly knows that writing characters like Derek sends mixed virtue signals. The author acts as a double agent across enemy lines—a territory full of white bookish men like himself. The main mission here is to go where many have gone before, to infiltrate the unsavory and everyday reaches of the mind, mapping vulnerable spots for future reference. This preemptive feel lasts forever. Martin seems poised to declare something and then decides a tasteful “Ahem” will do. But there’s nothing particularly dignified about the way things play out—two male narrators get hit in the face and only one of them deserves it! The other is sixteen.

There are dueling egos as well as sympathies. In the opening story, a tortured copy editor named Leslie, whom Martin first introduced in his debut novel, Early Work (2018), sits through a reading by local luminaries. Leslie knows most writing is bad, and Martin knows that bad writing can take many forms. Together, they make examples of the evening’s readers. Martin does a winning impression of historical fiction that bangs you over the head with exposition (“But Uncle, less than a decade ago, you promised Mother you would liquidate one-tenth of the holdings you accrued during your time in the banking industry and use that money to pay for Alexander’s passage west, to start a new and better life for himself!”) and Leslie asks the hard questions of a painfully amorphous personal essay that seems to be about the author’s “body, and . . . icebergs? And her father, who was . . . also an iceberg?” These critiques sketch the extreme outward bounds of two styles that some might unfairly term “macho” and “feminine,” respectively. All Leslie manages to compose in this story is a cogent email to her ex-boyfriend, but we expect the lines she has yet to pen will far exceed those of her peers, if only because we know her explicit dislikes.

In this spirit, I like to imagine where Martin may have anticipated getting roasted. Leslie would likely call him on all the “implied Western bullshit.” But it’s supremely self-aware, as in, “Jake sang along to the boy songs about backyards and barbeques in a chinny voice that indicated he recognized they were awful. Still, he knew all the words.” As Martin suggests, maybe that’s worse: to know something doesn’t quite meet your standards and still enjoy it. It’s not totally clear whether the “boy songs” offend for their medium or message—here readers can take their pick (see: “implied”). One of Martin’s signature moves is turning a no-no into a permission slip. When a “self-employed mechanic-poet” named Kenny explains he’s “only recently reached his ideal state, which was drinking beer on his back porch in an oil-stained T-shirt while bitching about the hunters on his property,” our narrator is quick to clarify his own position: Kenny lets him “pretend to be a roughneck when I wanted to.”

Andrew Martin. Photo: Caroline Martin/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Andrew Martin. Photo: Caroline Martin/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Readers of Early Work will remember this narrator, Peter, fantasizing about something very different than performative roughneckery. He’d like to wear a pit bull collar, “or better yet, a shock collar, so that I wouldn’t be able to speak.” He wishes Leslie (in the novel they’re lovers) would hold him on a short leash, make his world go ‘round. He leaves his longtime girlfriend to run off with Leslie, and they drive, of course, westward. Martin also has driving-into-the-sunset moment with Leslie: In the novel’s final pages, he leaves Peter in a bar somewhere and grafts the narration onto his better half. The book ends as she heads home to write scintillating fiction. Leslie’s early work as we know it flouts convention, an unbroken stream with no moral agenda and no illuminating trauma; it’s the kind of speculative, unencumbered thing Peter says he “would have written if I’d had any idea how.” For a novel that starts off in Peter’s corner, “two years removed from not becoming a doctor of literature,” this representation looks like endorsement: The future is Leslie.

In Cool for America, Martin yields further to the times—one might say he shares his platform by all puny means available, by which I mean more of his narrators are women. These stories take place in the same world as the novel—early in the Trump presidency, which hardly affects their characters. The circles are small. Inside them, people are “folks,” and folks are affable; you can tell because they’re always gripping one another by the shoulders in mock solemnity. The women are better writers, more serious addicts, and more socially savvy than the men. They disproportionally work at nonprofits, and although they may or may not be clear-eyed and open-hearted (“All the worst people worked for nonprofits,” Leslie decides), they tend to be more self-possessed than their male counterparts. Some common ground: Dogs reliably symbolize sanctity and levels of emotional intelligence these narrators have yet to unlock. Books are shorthand for thinking and feeling and flirting. The sole teenage narrator reads The Portrait of a Lady because a girl he likes mentioned it. An older young man explains to the woman he’s sleeping with that he doesn’t know how to fish by outing himself as never having read A River Runs Through It. This is doubly emasculating—he’s so vulnerable—because the story is set in Missoula, the chosen stomping ground of this and many other of Martin’s urban transplants. If they’re not lollygagging in rural towns out West, it’s Boston or New York by way of somewhere sad in Jersey. A former assistant at the New York Review of Books who did the rural-creative thing at the University of Montana, Martin’s writing cuts close to his own bone. MFA vs. NYC? “Both, probably?” he answered in an essay for the New Yorker.

That two-word quote—question mark absolutely included—could be taken as the condition of Martin’s fiction. His characters are similarly skilled wafflers, devil’s advocates born of haplessness and prone to bothsiderism. Existential dramas play out in bleak sentences that delight in the same ways a good bra or jockstrap might. “The world was never just one thing,” as a disillusioned office worker and playwright named Cassie puts it, with a healthy dose of stoner sagacity. Elsewhere, a more narrow-minded narrator does his best Raymond Carver: “Going to the hospital would be the worst bad thing.” (Refreshingly, no one ever says “I wrote a thing.”) These are not characters who take tearful showers or look out windows for storms that might bespeak their unspeakable pain. But we know they’ve been burned before because there’s so much defensive thinking going on. For Cassie, “okay times” and “decent chat” constitute dating. And generally, her thoughts “more often than not canceled each other out with their contradictions.” Opinions, when articulated, are rendered “medium-well,” like steak. Star pupil Leslie proves a master of this intermediate stance: She’s proud of Cal, her “newish” sort-of boyfriend who pens gratuitously violent and “flagrantly mediocre” historical fiction in the long shadow of Cormac McCarthy. Martin invites all this settling to devastate us with its smallness.

He’s a deliberate writer, so it’s worth asking why his narrators could all use the same attitude adjustment. You’ll hear it in Early Work, too. “I didn’t have anything resembling an aesthetic philosophy,” Peter thinks at one point in the novel, “but as a person, at least, I was all middle.” Again and again, Martin favors the same defects and charms in his characters, who harbor both superiority and inferiority complexes, and might even think this makes them unique. Martin seems intent on demonstrating by repetition that it does not.

These stories have me champing at the bit for what one narrator calls “a less mediated life.” Compared to Early Work, these stories pay more mature shrift to the question of why a proto-writer might not write. It’s not that the characters are off swimming in the pond behind Kenny’s house all the time, but because they’re afraid to reckon with “the gap” between what they might be able to pass off as wisdom and what they can “actively process.” Leslie knows that “imagining you were talented was the first step to a life of self-pity and disappointment,” and fears that taking herself seriously would calcify the more cowardly beliefs she’s lived by. Like Derek, she feels safer dismissing other people’s work, lobbing criticisms in lieu of convictions.

Martin himself has found judgment deeply generative. I suspect he wants readers to wonder whether the narrators here are proxy targets for self-loathing. That’s one explanation for why they all sound the same, for the choice words and preemptive digs so precise and pervasive they seem, on some level, to be self-directed. Is Martin grooming himself for an elaborate and circular neg? It’s a better look to humiliate your darlings than to kill them. Especially if you have trouble making up your mind.

Lizzy Harding is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She lives in New York and works at Bookforum.